Richard Holbrooke's relentless work for American leadership

Monday, December 13, 2010; 9:43 PM

Like legions of people around the world whose lives were improved by contact with Richard C. Holbrooke, we are feeling his loss very keenly. Mr. Holbrooke, who died Monday at the age of 69, wrote a monthly column for this newspaper during one respite from his successive tours of public service. The latter - public service - was at the core of Mr. Holbrooke's identity, and his contributions to American diplomacy over the past five decades will find their place in the history books. But the columns, on which he lavished great care, also provide a small window into the man: his outsized personality, his generous spirit, his clear-eyed view of America's imperfections - and his absolute devotion, those imperfections notwithstanding, to American leadership in the world.

The flair for drama is irrepressible. "Here in Tbilisi, tension is understandably high," he wrote from the republic of Georgia after Russia's invasion in August 2008. "Russian tanks are less than 25 miles away, and the wheat fields along the main road to Gori were ablaze, set on fire by Russian troops, as I drove through Russian checkpoints to get to that deserted, occupied city last Saturday." Not all diplomats can shake their habits of caution and circumspection sufficiently to write a lively column or memoir, but Mr. Holbrooke - perhaps because those habits were never very ingrained, even when he was on the inside - didn't need an editor's prod toward candor. Aerial spraying to kill poppies in Afghanistan, he wrote in a January 2008 column, "may be the single most ineffective program in the history of American foreign policy." For Mr. Holbrooke, the conditional tense in that sentence was a concession.

If the column - and the man - were passionate about policy, it was because he knew how much policy mattered."Hindsight tends to give historical narrative a sense of inevitability," he wrote in his 1998 book on the Dayton peace accords that he brokered. But often, he would say, there's nothing inevitable about it: For good and ill, policymakers shape events. The Dayton talks succeeded, war ended, lives were saved; by contrast, the Paris peace talks on Vietnam in 1968 came close but failed, and many thousands more died before war ended.

From this core insight - that people can shape history - much else followed: Mr. Holbrooke's devotion to the Foreign Service; his mentoring of younger diplomats; his insistence, even as a partisan Democrat, on civility and respect in partisan debates. And what he stood for tended to resonate across the aisle. On March 21, 2008, our columnist wrote that "this time" Washington's message to Pakistan "should be clear and consistent: democracy, reconciliation, the military out of politics, a new policy for the tribal areas - and more democracy." Subtract the Pakistan-specific prescription about tribal areas, and it's not a bad summation of the principles Mr. Holbrooke helped promote around the globe.

Mr. Holbrooke was a loyal friend to many, a companion of immense charm, humor and generosity. Still, whenever he reentered government - as President Jimmy Carter's assistant secretary of state for East Asia and the Pacific, as President Bill Clinton's ambassador to Germany, as President Obama's special envoy to to Afghanistan and Pakistan - he tended to be trailed by a little cloud of small-minded gossip, focusing on his supposed hunger for recognition. In truth, we have found that a willingness to accept credit for accomplishments is not a rare trait among those who make their way to Washington to forge careers. Mr. Holbrooke may have been less coy about it than some, but, more to the point, he was unwilling to let bureaucratic niceties stand in the way when, as he saw it, lives were on the line. We never viewed that sense of impatience as a failing.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company